Boston MFA exhibit reveals the savage, brutal life of Assyrians
By TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY
If you’re looking for the wrath of God, Assyria is a good place to start. Brutal, ravenous, boastful and pitiless, the Assyrians may not have been the most innovative thinkers of the ancient world, but they were among its most rapacious. The Scriptures speak of Assyria as a “bloody city” “full of lies and robbery,” whose “arrogant heart” and “haughty looks” the Lord will punish.
And he does look haughty, this Ashurnasirpal II whose callous, deadpan gaze stares visitors down in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s “Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria from the British Museum,” on view through Jan. 4, 2009. The MFA has gathered about 250 objects from the British Museum, found in palaces and temples dating from the 9th to 7th centuries B.C., when the Assyrian empire was at its height and its center was Nineveh, roughly where modern-day Mosul sits today.
It is a freakishly dazzling exhibition, whose shocking, gory bas-reliefs still manage to freeze the blood. That, of course, was the intent. The Assyrians were manifestly vicious warriors, but they were also terrifically effective propagandists. The bas-reliefs here, among the best produced in the ancient-world, have a singular purpose: to scare you to death.
They manage to do so quite effectively, with graphic images of decapitations, flaying, immolations, tongue removals and the proverbial impaling on sticks. For the Assyrians, landlocked thugs who needed to expand to prosper, image was everything. The image they wanted to project was that of your worst nightmare. Don’t mess with us, say these comic-band-like reliefs, or you are likely to be grinding your ancestors’ bones into clay before we club you to death in front of your closest relatives.
What the Assyrians lacked in compassion they made up for in plunder. Many of the astonishing objects assembled here — intricate, palm-sized striding sphinxes carved in ivory or glorious, and anthropomorphic lion’s heads — were likely seized in conquest. The Assyrians may have been brutal, but they had good taste.
Assyria began as a cozy series of largely Semitic and Kurdish cities along the Tigris River, about 300 miles north of Babylonia, then the ancient world’s greatest center of discovery. Assyria appears to have expanded in fits and starts until the 9th to 7th centuries B.C., the focus of the MFA exhibit. During that time, under leaders such as Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (668-631 B.C.), it emerged as a vast empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. It was the greatest empire known until that time. It encompassed all of present-day Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as large swaths of Israel, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.
The Assyrians were the bogey men of the Ancient World, and although there is ample evidence for their barbarity in their own and other sources, including Herodotus, it’s unclear that they were any more vicious than any of their contemporaries. What is different — and intriguing — is that the Assyrians promoted themselves that way — the gangstas of the Ancient world. As Will and Ariel Durant observed, “the Assyrians seemed to find satisfaction … in torturing captives, blinding children before the eyes of their parents, flaying men alive, roasting them in kilns, chaining them in cages for the amusement of the populace and then sending the survivors off to execution.”
Here, for instance, is Ashurnasirpal bragging that “all the chiefs who had revolted I flayed, with their skins I covered the pillar, some in the midst I walled up, others on stakes I impaled, still others I arranged around the pillar on stakes … As for the chieftains and royal officers who had rebelled, I cut off their members.”
Perhaps the best example of that is the chilling “Battle of the Til-Tuba,” the relief that shows the Assyrians defeating the Elamites of southern Iraq. This large-scale narrative relief, a mixture of image and cuneiform writing, is among the finest large-scale compositions in Assyrian art. It demonstrates key features of Assyrian art — its vivid exactitude, its dynamism and its exhilarating practice of depicting events both chronologically and simultaneously. Just as in real-time conflict, the chaos of warfare happens both step-by-step and all at once.
The MFA has helpfully parsed the story and it’s worth looking at it just for the sublime mayhem of the event. It includes the Babylonians forced to grind up the bones of their ancestors as the Assyrians garrote them, their clubs poised over their heads. As the Assyrian archers drive down a slope, Elamites are crushed, beheaded, skewered with arrows, run over by horses and impaled on sticks. In the middle of all of this, the chariot of the Elamite king, Teumann, crashes and he and his son tumble out. In the tumult, an arrow pierces Teumann in the back and Assyrians cluster around him, one braining his son with a club while another decapitates Teumann. The head is then bought back to Assyria for presentation to Ashurbanipal
Ashurbanipal feasted with his queen and had the head raised on a pole. Eventually, it was fixed over the gate of Nineveh until it rotted.
All this decapitation should come with an explanation. Soldiers were rewarded for these severed heads with booty, of which there was plenty. So, pretty much every Assyrian battle came with severed heads. The nobles got better treatment. Durant reports that their ears, noses, hands and feet were sliced off and their children were beheaded, flayed alive or roasted over a slow fire.
The only thing worse to be than an enemy of Assyria in the 7th century B.C. appears to have been a lion. Lions were hunted ritualistically as the king of the beasts. A human king’s slaughter of a lion was an allegory of his might and ability to bring order out of chaos. So there are reliefs after reliefs of kings on lion hunts, including one stunning relief of a lion leaping out of a cage and toward a king’s throat, before he pierces him with an arrow. What’s remarkable about these reliefs, as scholars have noted, is that while the humans in Assyrian reliefs come across stiff and knotted, the animals are represented with heart-stopping naturalness and grandeur. They are breathtaking.
Given all this savagery, it seems hard to believe that there was much time for art or discovery. And yet one of the most mesmerizing pieces of the exhibit are those cuneiform tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal, who created an enormous library at Nineveh that included copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Creation. Pieces of that library, burned with the destruction of the palace in 612 B.C., are on view here and they are intoxicating to look at. In addition to revered texts, there are also recipes for headaches, receipts for the sale of houses, contracts for slaves and marriage contracts — all on clay tablets.
Indeed, much of Assyrian art and science was appropriated from Egypt, or Babylon. Most of the gorgeous ivory carving was likely acquired though trade, tribute or booty. That includes the exhibit’s singular and signature piece, “The Lioness and the African,” a gorgeous piece of carved ivory inlaid with gold leaf, lapis lazuli and cornelian, which likely came from Phoenicia. The piece is a twin; its pendant was looted from the Iraq Museum in 2004. Assyria’s artistic skill was in reliefs, one of the finest examples of which is the “Dying Lion,” on view here, a relatively small but affecting image of a lion, punctured by an arrow, losing its battle for life. Its haunches descend, it vomits blood. Its mammoth head drops slowly to the earth, a noble and fearsome beast that, like the Assyrian empire, which fell to Babylon and its allies about 640 B.C., was in its last, imperious throes.